This week is anti-street harassment week, a week of action by activists worldwide to draw attention to the problem of street harassment (1). Notice I don’t use the word ”cat-calling”. Too cutesy and toothless, it is seen as mildly naughty but basically harmless, a bit of a laugh. A bit like a Councillor commenting on the pleasure he derives from the sight of the Council’s CEO cycling about the city she basically manages. All in good fun, right?
Certainly that is the reaction from a large part of the media and the general public; can’t you take a joke? And that’s also the crux of the problem; Councillor Craig would undoubtedly claim that he was not being sexist, merely raising a smile. And I don’t doubt that he believes he is right. But the constant commentary women endure on our appearance – not always “positive”, we are often told how unappealing we are, too – accompanies us everywhere we go in public like the soundtrack to an especially grim film. It even follows competent professionals, like Ms. Wylie, into our workplaces. It takes a sheltered perspective to insist it’s not sexist when it is so very obviously gendered.
Some illuminating statistics on street harassment; 64% of UK women have experienced sexual harassment in public, 35% sexual touching or groping. Those figures go up to 85% and 45% for young women under 25 and – most telling of all – it starts young, too, typically around puberty (2). Before girls are even women we are subjected to a barrage of comments, from the sleazy to the rudely insulting, telling us in no uncertain terms that now our bodies are the subject of public scrutiny. We learn early to alter our behaviour to deal with this. Travel in groups, carry keys between our fingers, wear headphones to block out the words. We expect it in the street and we expect it everywhere else. We learn a fixed smile lest we say the wrong thing. Talk shows wonder about the best way to reject unwanted advances in order to avoid being brutally beaten, while tabloids compare the Prime Minister’s legs to the First Minister’s and the Italian Prime Minister calls the German Chancellor an ”unf**kable lard arse”. They all exist in a continuum.
In this context, we cannot shrug off Councillor Craig’s comments about Ms. Wylie. He should absolutely apologise to Ms. Wylie, of course, but he should use this as a learning opportunity. The Lord Mayor asked that he think before he speak, and this is sound advice in life, but he ought also examine his thoughts while he’s at it, as should everyone who scoffs at this story. This kind of thinking is one of the most pervasive parts of the everyday sexism that seeps into all of our lives and thoughts, and the best way to challenge it is through education. Hollaback (3) and others are active in tackling the negative effects of this, and more can be done to work with young people round this too. Every year in Belfast activists from Belfast Feminist Network and Hollaback Belfast organise a Reclaim the Night (4) march to protest street harassment and assault. It goes largely unnoticed by the bulk of the media and by the City Council, now perhaps it is time for that to change.